Customs in Aubrey’s Royal Navy: The Wardroom

Generally speaking the customs practised by officers were those of polite civilian society, with modifications to suit naval circumstances, plus other changes caused through historic development.

The name wardroom itself bears discussion. Before about 1700 each officer lived and messed in his own quarters, cramped as they were. The captain’s cabin, on the other hand, was known as the Great Cabin. Under it was the wardrobe, a locker often used to stow articles of value taken from prizes. When not in use for that purpose the officers used it to hang their spare uniforms. It is first spoken of as being used as a general officers’ mess about 1750, at which time it was of much greater size than a locker, and was renamed the wardroom.

Until the mid-19th century the gunroom was where the small-arms were stowed. Here the gunner lived, together with and in charge of the non-commissioned junior officers. Toward the end of that century it was thought advisable to have the warrant officers mess separately; it was as late as 1948 that warrant officers’ messes were abolished.

The firm rule about not calling anyone a liar in the mess is obvious and sensible — it avoids trouble and bad feelings. Likewise, is the rule regarding not drawing swords in the mess — to discourage duelling. In fact the rule usually observed is that one does not ever wear a sword in a strange mess; to do so in your own is frowned upon.

It is customary for officers, and for men as well, to remove their caps (cover) before entering a mess other than their own; this custom applies equally to officers’ messes, and should be observed when passing through seamen’s messdecks except on duty. The customary rule applies to cabins and onshore buildings as well. This is the same as the practice ashore — you do not wear a hat in someone else’s home, and though you may wear it in your own home you would not normally do so.

All wardroom drinking is social, solitary drinking is considered taboo. It is customary to provide drinks for other officers, particularly one’s friends, and then to toast the others with “cheers” contracted from the Englishman’s “cheerio”. In the R.N. it is a custom that foreign languages are not spoken in the mess unless foreign guests are present.

At a mess dinner it is forbidden to pro­pose a toast before the Loyal Toast to the Sovereign, except that foreign heads of state are toasted first if foreign guests are present. In civilian circles it is permissible to drink toasts in water; naval superstition presupposes death by drowning for the personage toasted. Likewise a glass that rings tolls the death of a sailor; stop the ring and the Devil takes two soldiers in lieu. This will explain why naval officers never clink glasses in drinking a toast.

At mess dinners it used to be a custom to propose what was known as the toast of the day. The list that seems to be most commonly followed during the Napoleonic Era is:

Monday – our ships at sea

Tuesday – our men

Wednesday – ourselves, because no one else is likely to bother

Thursday – a bloody war or a sickly season (to ensure quicker promotion)

Friday – a willing foe and sea room

Saturday – wives and sweethearts – may they never meet (reply is made by the youngest officer present)

Sunday – absent friends

The then King of England, Charles II (1660 – 1685) is credited with authorising the drinking of the Loyal Toast while seated. When he rose in one of his ships to reply to a toast while seated, he struck his head on the low ceiling, not being used to the low head room these war ships had. He is reputed to have added “Gentlemen, your loyalty is not questioned”. Officers do not stand even when the National Anthem is played, except of course when the sovereign, a member of the Royal Family, or a foreign head of state is present, or when foreign guests are present and the head of any foreign state is toasted first, so our own sovereign will not suffer offence. Except for this ancient privilege of drink­ing the health of His Majesty while seated in naval messes, all toasts are drunk by naval officers while standing. Military officers of the Commonwealth conform to this practice when dining with us.

The Port or Madeira decanters are unstoppered, passed always to the left, and then stoppered, before the Loyal Toast is drunk. This practice suggests that the wine is served only for that purpose. If the port is passed again the decanters remain unstoppered until they are removed. The origin of the custom of passing the port always to the left is uncertain.

The custom at an officer’s wedding of forming an archway of swords, with their cutting edges upwards in the quinte or fifth guard position, symbolises the guarding of the couple as they enter upon their married life.

Finally two customs by which deference is shown to senior officers. A junior officer always enters a boat or coach first and leaves last. Although confusion exists on this point, a junior should precede his senior over the brow on going ashore and follow the senior officer onboard. This works at its best when a senior officer and his staff are calling because it enables the captain to greet the officer and lead him to his cabin without having to become ensnarled in staff officers. On departing the entourage can dis­appear over the brow or down the ladder, leaving the senior officer to engage in parting conversation with the captain.

Henry VIII ordered that “no captain shall take the wind of his admiral”, by which was meant the junior officer should pass to leeward of his senior so as not to inconvenience him by cutting off the wind from his sails. Similarly it has long been the custom to request permission to cross a senior’s bows, though the necessity for such a manoeuvre should be avoided if at all possible because it might require the senior to shorten sail or reduce speed to avoid collision. Officers observe this seamanlike practice in the mess: if they reach in front of another officer they say, “may I cross your bows?”

Courtesy of Craig V. Fisher (with LTCMD A.D. Taylor, C.D., R.C.N.) and HMS Richmond.
Image: Screencap from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (copyright Twentieth Century Fox 2003)

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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7 Comments on Customs in Aubrey’s Royal Navy: The Wardroom

  1. Subrookie // July 30, 2010 at 2:15 pm //

    One has to think that crew and officer comfort had to have improved significantly from the time of the Mary Rose (early 1500s) to the late 1700s. One reasons I can think of: out of necessity since they were spending much more time at sea why not make it as comfortable as you can.

    An interesting read about the customs of the navy. You can imagine the distress a young navy lieutenant must have felt in a swirling wind trying to stay leeward when accompanying an Admiral.

  2. The Dear Knows // August 2, 2010 at 2:53 am //

    I think my favorite part of this article is the explanation of why naval officers get to drink the Loyal Toast sitting. I can picture it SO clearly!

    Perhaps I ought to post an article about the evolution of ships from the early days of sail to the Napoleonic Era… I’m rather interested to learn the difference between the designs of those early ships and the later ones we know and love. Especially considering the Mary Rose sank on her first (I believe) voyage due apparently to some design flaws… All I really know about earlier ships is that they had that raised forecastle area. Any interest in this?

  3. RandomAspects // August 2, 2010 at 10:49 am //

    That would be a really interesting idea – I was up at Jamestown settlement recently (the one with the ships), and they had a lot of those older-types from when the colony was founded. They were actually used and I believe one of them actually crossed the ocean as well. That’d be a really fun article to read.

  4. Subrookie // August 2, 2010 at 11:37 am //

    I think the Mary Rose was around for a number of decades before she sank. I agree that would be an interesting topic. Carrack style ships built around the 15th and 16th Centuries had high castles for archers if I recall correctly. Columbus’s ships also fit into this category.

  5. The Dear Knows // August 2, 2010 at 6:02 pm //

    You’re right, Sub, I was thinking of the Vasa. Clearly I ought to research this better as I have no idea what I’m talking about! LOL!

    I didn’t know they had ships at Jamestown RA! Gahhhh so many wasted opportunities on my trip back east last year… I could have seen the USS Constellation in Baltimore but was like “Nah, sounds lame.” This was before my obsession with all things Age of Sail related 🙁

  6. The Dear Knows // August 3, 2010 at 4:19 am //

    Well, friends, after much searching I found a super-fascinating article on the evolution of ship design! I posted the first part of it just now, though I think the two parts to come are more interesting tbqh. Please let me know what you think!

  7. RandomAspects // August 3, 2010 at 6:53 am //

    Well, there’s really 2 different Jamestown settlement museums/sites. One’s the actual fort/dig site, and the other one has a gigantic and amazing museum, an indian village, a reconstructed fort, and then (I think) 5 ships (and you can go on 3 of them too !). Reenactors are everywhere. If you’re ever over here again, just ask directions at a gas station to the Jamestown with the ships; locals’ll know what you’re talking about.

    And psssh, I’m still waiting for the family trip to Europe in a few years (hopefully) to go see USS Victory. Now THAT would be something to never pass up.

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